Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Greetings

Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year

Harry Brockway's striking wood engravings head each monthly chapter of Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, by Simon Moss.  
This engraving of "Bellringers at Alstonefield" brings you all my seasonal greetings, and thanks for all your fascinating and entertaining blogs.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Irish Shipping News

'Revenons a ces Moutons'

"Ireland affords no news, and therfore I hope you will expect none, here is plenty of all things except money. and the colledge here has as much mutton for three halfepence as christch. can afford for sixpence. I was at kingsale not long since, where a poore marchant, had a great losse in his muttons, for driving his sheepe to the seaside over a rock that inclined towards the sea, one chanct to fall in, and all the rest, as sheep use to do, followd their leader and lept in, so that I thinke three hundred were drowned.  thes and like misschances makes your commons* so little, for twenty thousand sheep a yeare are reckond to got from one port to England, and ten thousand head of cattle, but fourteen Vessels of them were cast away a month since together.  at the same place was a vessell cast away coming to Ireland with spice and nutmegs, and it being neere the harbour, some Irish found some of the nutmegs and went to crack them, but thay prayed for a thousand of st patricks curses to fall upon the merchant for bringing nuts without kirnells in them.  if such kind of news doe affect you I could write diurnally of them."

George Percivall,   from Trinity College, Dublin,  to Christchurch, Oxford*  December 1660

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 3: James Whitbread Lee Glaisher

It was Queen Mary II who introduced the passion for blue and white china into Britain, when she and her husband William III came over from Holland in 1689 to take the English throne.  The appeal of blue and white probably culminated in the mass production of the transfer printed Willow pattern in the nineteenth century, which continues to this day*.  The collector who owned this elaborate Delft posset pot describes "the real charm and beauty of the ware is to be seen in its highest perfection in some of the pieces decorated only in blue upon a white ground".  
This was Dr. James  W. L. Glashier, a mathematics  don at Trinity College, Cambridge,  lecturing to the Society of  Arts in 1897, and the posset pot features on his personal bookplate.   

Tin glazed earthenware (delft) posset pot, dated 1685,  Bristol/London c. 1504.  ©Fitzwilliam Museum
(Posset was a drink of warm milk with eggs, sugar and spices, curdled with wine or ale.)

James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (1848-1928)  © Trinity College, Cambridge

Dr Glaisher's father (also James) was a pioneering meteorologist and balloonist, who took his teenage son with him on two ascents,  and Dr Glaisher became a respected astronomer and was President of the Royal Astronomical Society for some years.  His collection contained several delftware plates commemorating early balloon flights, and this more unusual one from Bristol, dated 1740, (showing a holiday pastime in Teneriffe perhaps?).
It is based on a print illustrating "A Voyage to the Moone; or a Discours of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger" of 1638.  The 'speedy messenger' was in fact Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, and in his utopian story Gonsales describes how he harnesses wild swans to fly him to the Moon and back.

Bristol tin-glazed earthenware, 1740  
Purchased by Glaisher 1915 for £6.10s.  © Fitzwilliam Museum

As a mathematician and astronomer, and Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge,  this figure of Sir Isaac Newton from his collection would have appealed strongly to him.  He also helped Trinity to acquire a key manuscript letter from Newton to Hooke, discussing how to measure the rotation of the earth.

Sir Isaac Newton, showing the comet of 1680.
Ralph Wood, Staffs., overglaze enamels c. 1790 © Fitzwilliam Museum

Glaisher had an extensive library of books,  collecting manuscripts and Georgian chapbooks as well, which he donated in his will to his college and to Cambridge University Library.  He was a wealthy bachelor and his collections filled his rooms at Trinity.  "His collections never ceased to grow….outgrew available space, upstairs, downstairs, even in his remote bedroom.  He was granted an additional set of rooms at the top of his staircase and next to the upper floor of his own set; they, too, soon were filled.  He then hired a sort of warehouse, that also became filled in due course.  …the Fitzwilliam Museum … granted him a room (also soon filled) in the new wing…" wrote J. J. Forsyth.

He travelled widely, from Egypt to the United States,  and added to his collections (which included early samplers and Valentines) wherever he went. 

Haida totem pole from Queen Charlotte Island, British Columbia
©  Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge 

 In Cambridge, Glaisher would not have seemed eccentric, riding everywhere on his penny-farthing bicycle,  chairing a stormy public campaign meeting for Emily Pankhurst in 1910, and buying this Haida totem pole from the anthropologist C. F. Newcombe, for Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where it is the centrepiece of the display.

His carefully recorded collections of nearly 6000 pieces of European pottery and porcelain now grace the Fitzwilliam Museum for our enjoyment and study today.

(with thanks to Dr. Julia Poole for her articles)

*  catch  Blue and White: British Printed Ceramics, at the V&A (ends January)  
Robert Dawson Blue Plate © V&A Museum  

Monday, 14 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 2: C. Drury E. Fortnum

Charles Drury Edward Fortnum made his first fortune mining in Australia in the 1840s.  Back in England  he married twice, each time to a rich cousin, heiresses of the Fortnum family grocery wealth.
He travelled on the continent with his wives, collecting and studying Renaissance ceramics, especially maiolica, and bronzes, many of which he loaned to Henry Cole's South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria & Albert Museum) for a special  exhibition in 1862.   For several years, he was an Art Referee or consultant for the Museum, negotiating purchases,  for which he refused to be paid commission because he was 'a gentleman and not a dealer'.  A member of the Society of Antiquaries, he became a Trustee of the British Museum in 1889.

Venetian glass goblet, gilded and enamelled, 1475-1500  © V&A Museum
Purchased by Fortnum for the Museum in 1884

Victorian museums were very competitive institutions in their collecting, and subject to the interests and expertise of individual curators, who could be very cavalier in their decisions.    Offended particularly by one at the South Kensington Museum,  who refused to recognise and accept a terracotta relief by Antonio Rossellino which Fortnum had offered them,  Fortnum looked elsewhere for a home for his treasures. He felt strongly that "to entrust my loved children (my only family) to a baby-farm where they might die for want of proper nursing, clothing or care, would be the act of an extremely careless or unnatural parent".  Courted by curators from the Ashmolean Museum,  he eventually decided to transfer his collections to the Ashmolean, bequeathing them in his will, along importantly with funds to create a proper building to house them.

In 1889 Oxford University awarded him a Doctorate of Civil Law  (he had served as a local magistrate for many years)  in recognition of his gift.

C. Drury E. Fortnum, DCL,    Charles Alexander 1893
© Ashmolean Museum

He was a pioneer and his collection included  early 13th century pieces, as well as the luxury lustre wares, and istoriato narrative plates, showing scenes from history and classical myth.
He presented this istoriato plate to the Ashmolean in 1888, as well as other top quality and historically important pieces from his maiolica collection.

   Dish with Archelaus, King of Cappadocia, before the Emperor Tiberius
Urbino, c. 1530-35  ©  Ashmolean Museum

What the South Kensington Museum did have was Fortnum's masterly Catalogue of Renaissance Maiolica in the South Kensington Museum of 1873, which researchers still consult.  The woodcut illustrations show fine details in counterpoint to modern photographic images.

 His scholarly introductory essay describing the history, techniques and study of Renaissance maiolica was also published as a South Kensington Museum Art Handbook in 1875,  "enabling the public at a trifling cost to understand something of the history and character of the subjects treated of."

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Cabinet of Collectors 1. Willam Courten, called Charleton

William Courten (1642-1702) in youth, c. 1655
© Trustees of British Museum

In March 1690, John Evelyn recorded that:

"I went againe to see Mr. Charleton's Curiosities both of Art & nature: as also his full & rare collection of Medails:  which taken alltogether in all kinds, is doubtless one of the most perfect assembly of rarities that can be anywhere seene:  I much admired the contortions of the Thea [tea] roote, which was so perplext, large & intricate, (& with all hard as box) that it was wonderful to consider:"

 Tea plant, from A Natural History of the Tea Tree  John C. Lettsom 1772

John Evelyn visited William Courten (known as Charleton) several times, to admire his collections of rare medals, paintings, books, shells, minerals and precious stones, plants and natural history specimens from across the globe, which he displayed for visitors in ten rooms in the Middle Temple. 

© Natural History Museum London

William may have changed his name to Charleton to distance himself from a long, contentious family lawsuit.  He became a wealthy merchant and travelled widely, as well as seeking rarities via his network of friends, including John Locke, whom he met in France in 1675.  In 1679 Locke replies from Paris to his friend Charleton in Montpellier:

   "However, I have got into my custody [for forwarding to London] that which I suppose you value most. i.e. six boxes of seds plants ett and one turned one wherein is a green Lizard,  and doubt not on twesday next to have the books at least all those that are not Contrabanded."

Locke gave him a recipe for preserving plants, and in 1685 Charleton is writing from London to Locke in Utrecht about his collection:

"I most heartily thank you for the acquisition you have made for me of 2 such great rarities as the clove, and cinnamon tree branches, and wish I had anything to make a return to the gentleman that gave them you;….'of doubles I have preserved in spirit of wine which I had at Montpellier (and as well conditioned as when first put into the glasses) a black, and grey scorpion*, a strange sort of locust, a large peice of chrystall with mosse in it, and a small parcel of rich silver ore'…

He also asks him to buy some desirable items:  " I heare there is lately a great Collection to be sold by auction at Amsterdam…amongst which are 2 Remoras if to be had at reasonable rates [20 shillings] I would willingly have them both, and what fine coloured Indian birds there may be…, the Insects that are Exotick of all kinds will be verry acceptable, espicially the great Phalangium [a venomous spider], the teeth of which are usually set in gold to make tooth picks of, the Tarantula of the spider* sort found in the Kingdome of Naples, for the other is a kind of Lizart and common all over Italy, the Stella arborescens [basket-fish] if to be meet with I should desire you to procure for me, amongst the seamen things may be had at easier rates than when they come into the possession of curious and knowing men…" 
*  Evelyn mentions 'the spider and bird, scorpion, other serpent &c.' after visiting in 1691.

Charleton sent some seeds also via a Dr Hans Sloane, which is probably how Locke too became friends with Sloane.   On his death in 1702, Charleton left all his collections to Sir Hans Sloane, and so they ended up now dispersed among the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the British Library and elsewhere.

[see Biographia Britannica by Andrew Kippis 1725-1795, and Sachiko Kusukawa on]

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

December - "a chord of starlings"

The coming of winter. From Wild Hares and Hummingbirds,  Simon Moss.

"The next morning Jack Frost has returned with a vengeance, and now the scenery really has turned whiter-than-white; white trees, white hedgerows, white grass, white roofs and white sky. This is landscape in crystal form, only punctuated by the staccato notes of black birds as they dash across the sky or gather in the fields: chords of starlings, followed by the occasional crow, jackdaw or rook.  And one brief splash of colour: a flock of goldfinches, whose crimsons and golds illuminate the landscape like a coloured frame added to an old black-and-white film.

Gwyngyed Mountain, Winter   Ogwyn Davies
©  University of Aberystwyth

Later, as the sun sets over Brent Knoll, a low ridge of colour hangs over the Mendips, while a darker, more menacing wave arrives from the west.  A strong, full moon begins to rise, gradually illuminating the flat, white landscape.  A lone buzzard perches on top of a hawthorn hedge, surveying his misty kingdom.  Apart from a distant dog barking, and the hum of the milking parlour at Perry Farm, all is quiet; when it is as cold as this, no bird will waste energy in song.  In the rhyne by the farm a lone heron stands rigid on the ice, as if fixed permanently to the spot.  On catching sight of me he has just enough energy to flap those huge rounded wings and fly away.  I hope he finds some water, somewhere in this frozen land.

Soft, ghostlike, the mist surges westwards from the darkness, creating a blanket of vapour over the layer of snow beneath, like a counterpane laid carefully over a duvet.  As it finally covers the land, the tops of trees and hedgerows poke out as if grasping towards the last few minutes of daylight, before they too are swathed in the mist."

Winter series  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
© the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust